It's hard to come up with silver linings from the Falcons' dreadful performance against the Giants yesterday, but the best one that I can think of is that there are no silver linings. The Falcons' brass are going to have to make changes to repair an operation that is not operating up to its potential. In that respect, a really bad defeat like the one the Falcons suffered yesterday can be a cleansing experience.* There are all sorts of excuses that we can tell ourselves after a close loss, but what can we say after the offense was shut out by a defense that finished the regular season 22nd in the NFL in yards per play allowed? If the Falcons want to maintain their goodwill with the local populace, they cannot stick with their current hand.
* - My favorite example of the cleansing defeat is the first Bowl Alliance national championship game, where Florida was humiliated 62-24 by Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Steve Spurrier realized that, despite a great deal of regular season success (his Gators had just won their third straight SEC title that year), he needed to upgrade the defensive staff. Out went Bob Pruett as defensive coordinator, in came Bob Stoops, and one year later, Spurrier had his national title. In the following years, Stoops' defenses kept the Gators in good shape as the offense regressed after Danny Wuerrfel's elgibility ran out and SEC defenses finally started catching up to the Fun 'n' Gun.
The defeat to the Giants ought to convince the Falcons that they need a new offensive coordinator. It's easy and cliched after a bad loss to demand a coach's head on a pike. Fortunately, I can say that I've been griping about Mularkey for years, so this isn't a knee-jerk reaction. Despite a No. 3 pick at quarterback handing off to a $5M running back and throwing to a pair of first round receivers and a Hall of Fame tight end, the Falcons didn't manage a single offensive score against the Giants. Four of the five highest paid Falcons are offensive players. This is a team that is built to win primarily on offense, so when they can't move the ball, the blame goes to the guy who designs the offense and calls the plays.
Rooting for Mularkey's offense is like rooting for a guy who keeps banging his head against a brick wall to knock the wall down. Here is what I wrote after the loss to the Packers in the playoffs last year:
Let's start with Mike Mularkey. There is a general criticism to be made and then a specific one. Generally speaking, the Falcons' offense is underwhelming because it does not threaten the opponent down the field. Can anyone remember an instance where the Falcons took a shot down the field last night, other than the hurried throw-and-hope by Matt Ryan for his first interception? (And nice effort on that play, Michael Jenkins.) The Packers knew that the Falcons were going to be throwing in a certain short area and they jumped all over those routes. Look at the difference between the cushions given to Packers receivers and those given to Falcons receivers. You think that the ability to stretch the field isn't a factor there? That brings us to the specific criticism: the play that ended in the back-breaking pick six was one of the worst playcalls in recorded history. Let's count the ways in which it was a terrible idea. Mularkey decided to roll his right-handed quarterback left to throw a sideline pattern when the defense knew that the Falcons had no timeouts and would need to throw to the sidelines. Not to belittle him, but Tramon Williams had an incredibly easy read. You know you've dialed up a bad play when your quarterback is asked about the play after the game and he says he should have thrown it away. No shit you should have thrown it away, Matt; your offensive coordinator might as well have presented Dom Capers with an engraved tablet telling him where the throw was going.
We can make the same criticisms this year, only with the horrendous failure on fourth and inches in the third quarter replacing the late second quarter rollout as "one of the worst playcalls in recorded history." The Falcons' longest gain yesterday was 21 yards. After the team acquired Julio Jones to become more explosive, there was no evidence that the Falcons could threaten the vulnerable Giants' secondary down the field. As a result, even when the Falcons were able to make plays, their degree of difficulty was high because they seemed to be playing in a telephone booth.
And that third quarter sneak, what the f*** was Mularkey thinking? To set the stage for those of you who have wisely blocked the game out of your memories, it's 10-2 Giants with less than five minutes to go in the third quarter. The Falcons have a fourth and one from the Giants' 21. They have already been stopped on a sneak in a similar situation in the second quarter. So what do the Falcons do? They line up with an empty backfield and run a sneak. The empty look gives away that a sneak is coming because there is no running threat other than the quarterback. A spread formation makes sense if it draws defenders out of the box, but the Giants had seven players up tight. The defense was not concerned with the possibility of a pass, probably because Mularkey has never shown the tendency to throw the ball in this situation. In short, the Giants knew exactly what was coming and ate the play alive, just as the Packers did in what turned out to be the biggest play of the playoff loss last year.
Poor playoff performances are nothing new for Mularkey's offenses. There will be much made for the next year about the fact that Mike Smith and Matt Ryan are 0-3 in the playoffs, but the majority of the blame ought to be laid at Mularkey's doorstep. In 2008, the Falcons put up 250 yards and 24 points (seven of which were scored late against a semi-prevent defense) against the Cardinals. That Cardinals team was not good defensively - only four NFL teams allowed more points in 2008 - but they were able to stop the Falcons' offense. In 2010, the Falcons put up 194 yards and 21 points (seven of which were scored in garbage time and another seven came on a kickoff return) against the Packers. Yesterday, the Falcons managed 247 yards and zero offensive points. I'm not a fan of the mantra that "only the playoffs matter," but in this case, there is strong evidence that Mularkey is not successful in big games where the opponent is committing full attention to the game.*
* - Mularkey's playoff history in Pittsburgh is more checkered. His two playoff games in 2001 were what we've come to expect from his time at the Falcons - 22 points per game and 301.5 yards per game - but his team in 2002 engaged in a pair of shootouts, averaging 33.5 points and 378 yards per game. In sum, Mularkey has taken offenses to the playoffs five times and in only one of those five season did his offenses put up above-average numbers.
Leaving the playoff struggles aside, the most basic criticism of Mularkey is that he doesn't understand the strengths of his own attack. The Falcons are at their best when Matt Ryan is throwing the ball around to the toys that Thomas Dimitroff has bought for him.
The Falcons' running game is overrated by people who only look at raw numbers. Michael Turner was 39th in the NFL in DVOA this year. Put another way, he was below average in terms of his success rate on a per-play basis. Collectively, the Falcons' running game ranked 25th in the NFL by Football Outsiders' numbers. If you look at the more conventional yards per carry number, the Falcons jump all the way up to 22nd. An objective observer would look at this team and conclude that their approach in January should have been to throw the ball and then use the run on occasion to keep the defense honest. Mularkey, whether because of ideological rigidity or a misguided notion of avoiding the Giants' pass rush, stubbornly gave Turner nine carries in the first half. Those carries produced a whopping 27 yards. Did Mularkey react to this evidence by refraining from wasting downs in the second half? No, he started the half by giving Turner three more carries that produced ten yards. The Falcons blew their chances when the defense was playing really well.
In sum, Mularkey is an anachronism. We are in a passing-dominated era. The three favorites for the Super Bowl are all teams with great passing games that can cover for suspect defenses and, in two of three cases, mediocre running games. At times, the Falcons played like a modern team this year. Matt Ryan wouldn't have thrown for 4,177 yards if the team had a hopelessly conservative attack. However, the team repeatedly struggled offensively in games against quality opponents because of Mularkey's old-fashioned offense. The Falcons played only five games against playoff teams in the regular season and averaged 17.2 points per game in those contests.
Maybe Mike Smith puts constraints on his offensive coordinator. Maybe Matt Ryan gets gun-shy against good defenses. Regardless, the Falcons aren't getting rid of Smith or Ryan because of their accomplishments. That leaves Mularkey. It's time to see what Ryan and friends can do with a more aggressive scheme.